First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25: 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-13

These readings remind me of the early explorers I used to read about. These were people who took on extremely dangerous missions to explore the world. I especially liked Eric the Red, a Viking, who founded settlements in Greenland, or his son Leif Ericson, who was the first European to arrive in North America. They left their homes with small ships. Long voyages were dangerous; they could run out of food or water; in the cold northern seas, they could easily freeze. Their men complained, or wanted to turn back. But the leaders had a vision, and compelled their sailors to continue on, and because they did, they found new lands, new homes, new lives. We are like the sailors on those ships, and Christ is our captain; when life gets hard, when we suffer, especially for our captain Jesus, we will want to turn back, or to quit, but our perfect captain knows where we are going, and he is taking us there. And so we have to trust him.

Essentially what we have here is a letter where St. Peter the apostle is urging Christians in Asia to press on through times of suffering and persecution. This is part of his assurance to them, explaining to them how and why they can continue forward even though everything seems dark. And he will conclude by pointing out to them that Jesus Christ has, through his death and resurrection, defeated the Powers of Evil in this world, and that because we are baptized into him and one with him, we too will share in that victory one day. 

This is the point of the gospel reading today: even when tempted by the Devil himself, Jesus withstood the temptation; he was given the opportunity to avoid his own suffering and death, but instead, he defied the forces of evil because what was to be gained was greater than his suffering.

Peter begins here by pointing out to those suffering that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God…” We suffer, but remember that Christ suffered worse, and he the righteous one suffering for us, the unrighteous. His suffering was the ultimate act of humility and self-giving. But his suffering accomplished what nothing else ever could: it restored our relationship with God. 

It then tells us that Jesus went to “proclaim to the spirits in prison,” who did not obey in the time of Noah. Peter is referring to an interesting tradition here. The story of Noah is that humanity had gotten so corrupt and evil that God sought to “reboot”; he sent a flood that killed those who were evil, but preserved Noah and his family. There was a tradition in Jesus and Peter’s time that there were dark spiritual forces that encouraged and motivated evil in the world, and that they were imprisoned after the flood. His point in drawing on this tradition is simply this: Jesus is proclaiming his victory over death, proclaiming to the powers of evil, “you are defeated!”. It is Peter’s way of saying, “No matter how far flung the powers of darkness in our world are, Jesus Christ has victory over them!”

Pointing to this story also allows Peter to get to his real point: Through your baptism you are God’s, and therefore you have victory over them too.

The water of the flood destroyed many people, but saved Noah in the sense that it lifted the ark up from the ground. It was both a blessing, and a curse, depending on where one stood. So, too is baptism; it is a part of our salvation, a promise, and a commission. As water it is a sign of life, and of death. It could drown us, or, as in the waters of baptism, it saves us.

Baptism isn’t magic, though. It gives us life only through the operation of the Holy Spirit, only because God promises us that the Spirit will work through that water. It enlivens our souls as it is accompanied by faith, and then is an “appeal to a good conscience.” The cleansing of baptism is deep, purifying the heart and soul….but then it also is an appeal, a demand, a commission to us to continue in growing into the life of the Spirit. One who is baptized is blessed by the Spirit, and also obligated to follow the commands of God!

Put it another way: To be baptized is to take a commission on a ship. The area you are in now is called the nave, a Latin root word that we get our word “navy” from. Ancient Christians essentially thought of it as the ark, the ship of salvation that carries us home.  When you join that ship, you have to follow through; the captain of your soul calls and commands, and suffering with us, leads the way. And we have to trust him. 

While it is still hard, it is not without purpose.  St. Peter is urging those he is writing to, keep the faith. They were suffering. Suffering, though, for the sake of the kingdom of God, and Peter is explaining that the call that their baptism puts on them is to continue in the faith. And they can do this because that baptism saves them, because that baptism is an appeal to a good conscience through the resurrection of Christ. 

That resurrection is the power of God. That resurrection is the defeat that is proclaimed to the imprisoned, evil spirits. All the cosmos heard the proclamation, “Jesus has defeated death, and is the Lord.”And through our baptism, we are victorious as well. Our baptism is into Jesus, and so his resurrection becomes our resurrection. The victory of Jesus is our victory. Now we know that all evil hasn’t been eradicated, has not been cleansed from the world.  God’s kingdom works through it like yeast through a loaf, or dye through water. It is slow, but steady; incomplete, but already won. Our ship will reach its destination, but we have to stay on it.

Even though the darkness presses in, and we suffer now, we press forward in the knowledge that the back of evil has been broken, that Christ has put the powers into subjection even into the furthermost place, and that those in Christ are promised that even through suffering they will ultimately gain the victory of Christ.

Our suffering is not meaningless. Jesus suffered for us, and rose again, life overcoming death and thus defeating the evil powers of the world. And baptism saves us, because the promise of the Holy Spirit is to move through the water to renew us within and to unite us to Christ. Water can be death for some, but it is life for us, and like those on the ark, by the power of God through the resurrection of Jesus we are brought through the water into abundant, eternal life, and the victory of Christ over “angels, authorities, and powers” is our victory too.

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